By: Dipak Kurmi
The resounding victory of the Congress in the Karnataka Assembly elections has ensured that they will independently form the government in the state. This achievement has not occurred since 2013, and prior to that, in 1999 when the Congress won the election and SM Krishna led the government, later succeeded by Dharam Singh. During the intervening period, the state witnessed a series of fragile coalitions formed by the major players, namely the BJP, Congress, and Janata Dal (Secular). These uneasy alliances often plunged the state, known for its advancements in information technology and infrastructure, into political and administrative chaos.
Out of the total 224 Assembly seats, the Congress secured a substantial victory by winning 135 seats, significantly surpassing the BJP’s count of 66 seats. Meanwhile, the JD(S) trailed far behind with only 19 seats. The notable 7 percent swing in favor of the Congress reflects the extent to which the party solidified its position among the various castes and communities that hold influence over the distribution of power. This outcome shattered the BJP’s aspirations of causing a last-minute surprise upset.
The Congress’ triumph cannot be solely attributed to the backing of select castes and communities. It successfully breached the BJP’s stronghold among the Lingayats and managed to secure a significant portion of the votes from the influential Vokkaliga group. The defeat of Nikhil Kumaraswamy, son of former Chief Minister and JD(S) leader HD Kumaraswamy, in the Vokkaliga-dominated Ramanagara constituency at the hands of Congress’ Iqbal Hussain served as evidence of the party’s breakthrough within a community that had previously shifted allegiance after SM Krishna’s departure and the JD(S)’s ascent. This movement of both Lingayats and Vokkaligas towards the Congress showcased a transcendence of earlier coalitions like AHINDA, which symbolized a caste division between more privileged castes and marginalized social groups, including Backward Castes, Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims, skillfully brought together under the leadership of former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.
The outcome of the year 2023 has revealed the BJP’s failure to drive a division between Hindus and Muslims through their singular focus on a specific agenda. This agenda revolved around forcefully removing the hijab from girl students in educational institutions, resulting in dropouts. They also sought to impose a ban on the sale of meat, reignite age-old temple-mosque disputes, and rewrite history with the primary intention of portraying Tipu Sultan as a persecutor of Hindus. Ultimately, the BJP’s faith-driven program was overshadowed by their accusation that the Congress party’s promise to ban the Bajrang Dal, a Sangh Parivar outfit, amounted to an insult to Lord Hanuman. This allegation was prominently highlighted by the BJP’s top leaders during the election campaign. In the face of communalism, governance shortcomings took precedence. The Congress party effectively countered by emphasizing corruption within the government’s higher ranks, encapsulated in their slogan of a “40 percent commission sarkar.”
In a notable turn of events, the BJP made a midstream change in its Chief Minister, replacing BS Yediyurappa with a younger leader named Basavaraj Bommai. The party’s intention was to ensure the continued support of the Lingayat community, as Bommai, like Yediyurappa, hails from this community. However, this move highlighted a recurring issue of over-centralization within the present BJP regime, where Chief Ministers are appointed without allowing regional leaders to develop naturally. This approach is reminiscent of the era of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Bommai, who had previously been a member of the Janata Dal (United), joined the BJP in 2008. Similar to his counterpart in Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was formerly associated with the Congress party, Bommai faithfully embraced and implemented the instructions of the party high command, particularly with regards to the Hindutva agenda.
In contrast, Yediyurappa played a pivotal role in establishing the BJP’s presence in Karnataka, much like Keshubhai Patel and Shankersinh Vaghela did in Gujarat. Eventually, the central leaders of the BJP recognized the mistake of sidelining Yediyurappa and took corrective measures. They rectified the situation by granting a ticket to Yediyurappa’s son, BS Vijayendra, for the Assembly polls and involving the veteran leader himself in the campaign. This decision reflected a belated acknowledgment of Yediyurappa’s significance and contribution to the party’s growth in the region.
However, these efforts proved insufficient and came at a time when the tide had already turned. The Lingayat community had already started drifting towards the Congress party, causing a significant upheaval in the very foundation that had firmly supported the BJP for several decades. The once-unshakeable pillar that had propelled the BJP’s success was now experiencing a seismic shift, posing a formidable challenge for the party’s future prospects.
Once again, the JD(S) party strategically positioned itself as a potential “kingmaker” in the event of a fragmented outcome in Karnataka. With aspirations of securing a significant number of seats, the party fielded candidates in 200 out of the 224 constituencies, aiming to garner support from the minority voters traditionally aligned with the Congress. While the Congress party garnered the backing of the Muslim and Christian communities, the JD(S) inadvertently relinquished its own Vokkaliga support base to the Congress in this endeavor. This complex political maneuvering underscored the intricacies of electoral calculations and the shifting dynamics at play in Karnataka.
Even in their triumph, the Congress party must reflect upon the lessons learned from the Karnataka elections. The state leaders attributed their success to the efforts of the Gandhis, with particular recognition given to Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra that traversed the length and breadth of the state. DK Shivakumar, the president of Karnataka Congress, emotionally recounted a heartfelt encounter with Sonia Gandhi, who visited him in Tihar jail during his detention by the Enforcement Directorate on charges of money laundering. However, it is crucial to acknowledge the pivotal roles played by leaders like Siddaramaiah, Shivakumar, and others in achieving this resounding victory. Additionally, the appointment of Mallikarjun Kharge as the Congress president likely contributed to securing votes in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, which is his native constituency. Over the years, the Congress party paid a steep price for publicly disparaging veteran leader Veerendra Patil, a respected figure within the Lingayat community, causing the community to distance itself from the party.
The Gandhis and the Congress have received a much-needed surge of energy and enthusiasm, a fact that cannot be overlooked when evaluating the overall situation. In the final analysis, it is the states that constitute the true essence of the ‘high command,’ regardless of whether it pertains to the Congress or the BJP. It is impractical for both parties to disregard influential figures such as Yediyurappa, Vasundhara Raje, Kamal Nath, and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, attempting to exert control solely through handpicked candidates of their choosing. The importance of recognizing and respecting regional leaders and their impact on the party’s performance should not be underestimated. (The writer is a journalist and commentator based in Guwahati, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)